Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Getting folks around the table

Last week I was invited to attend some community input meetings being held as part of the Tourism Foundations program for the Tourism Cowichan region. When Geoff Millar invited me, I was pleasantly surprised that the communities had requested to go at this as a region - particularly because some of the communities are quite different in size and engagement with tourism already.

The sessions were facilitated by Jennifer Houiellebecq of the Tourism Planning Group. I have been to many of these types of meetings and am always impressed to see people from public/private sectors and all areas of tourism sit in the same room together. It is one of the critical components to overall success in tourism - if folks can't get around the table, and stay around the table to discuss their vision for tourism and strategies to get there - they are unlikely to meet with success.

So - for those out there who are either trying to get tourism going in a rural area, or trying to get it on track - you may want to take note. But here are some critical points to remember when it comes to engaging stakeholders in tourism planning work:

Never assume a meeting is a group - just because people come to one meeting, that does not mean that they are a cohesive group, nor does it mean they share a common goal or that they will be committed to moving ideas generated along. Multiple gatherings where the same people return time and time again are evidence that you have a group of people involved and interested in the activity. Mutual work being done in between is even stronger evidence.

Who is not around the table may be more important than who is - I have been to many meetings where the guest list is hand picked local dignitaries and public positions who engage in great discussions about tourism, but who may not be the champions required to move things forward. Business must be around the table and if possible, leading the charge - and public leaders need to recognize that tourism is an industry driven, community supported and planned activity. Trust is critical to success - and therefore time needs to be built into the process to ensure that this evolves with those at the table - otherwise well intentioned initiatives can be doomed for failure. Memories about attempted collaboration can have a long shelf life in rural communities, particularly if the people involved remain in leadership positions - so err on the side of inclusion and a slower process in favor of strong results.

So go forth and rally your stakeholders to the table, invite widely, make sure meetings are accessible for different people (i.e. time of day/date/seasons are different for businesses who are not paid for participation) take time to build a process that works for everyone, keep the meetings productive, monitor how they are working for people (do people keep coming? do certain groups fall off?)and be willing to modify as you move along to keep the spirit of trust and momentum going.

Best of success!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Using amenities for rural economic development

The natural and cultural assets of an area are key determinants to human settlement. In Canada’s rural areas, these assets have contributed to settlement patterns and a legacy of rich heritage. For many of Canada’s rural regions, these assets were utilized to develop economies based on the extraction of natural resources. As time has evolved, numerous external pressures and new global realities have reshaped the relationship that rural residents have with these resources. Now, many rural areas are rethinking how they can utilize their rich natural and cultural heritage to keep their communities alive. The same assets are now being viewed as amenities that have the potential to reshape economic development strategies by bringing people (visitors and residents) into rural areas instead of simply exporting natural resources out.

Awareness of the influence of amenities on rural population patterns has been growing. Residents of urban areas are seeking out the amenities of rural areas for outdoor recreation and tourism or as key attributes in resettlement for either part time (second home ownership) or full time residence. Booth (1999) found in studies in the western US that high population densities are oriented to amenities such as ski areas, national parks, and to universities and colleges. Clark and colleagues( 2002) found evidence that cultural amenities are key contributors to settlement in urban areas and are key to economic vitality. Overall, studies have shown that there is a correlation between amenity rich areas and higher levels of employment, population and income growth (Henderson & McDaniel, 2005; Hunter et al, 2005; Nzaku & Bukenya, 2005).

While there is still a lot to learn about how communities and regions can use their amenities in economic development, there appears to be enough consensus that they can be strong contributors and should be factored into discussions. For starters, here are some questions worth considering:

1. Are you in an amenity rich location? If so, what are they? Natural (weather, topography, settings) or man made (culture, heritage sites, etc). Is your perception of your own amenities consistent with what outside audiences know about your area?
2. Are you incorporating these amenities into your economic development or tourism development strategies? Are they listed as assets that are central to your economic strategies? Are they identified, understood and promoted to attract entrepreneurs, firms, residents or visitors?
3. Are you seeking to attract people as residents? Remember - attracting people attracts jobs and concentrations of people create demand for services. Note that natural amenities have been associated to higher economic activity (jobs) for some industries more than others. For example, recreation and tourism based industry growth fits amenity rich locations whereas manufacturing is not as good a fit (due to higher land costs and adverse effects of some manufacturing activity where emissions or environmental issues are evident).

That ought to keep you thinking about amenities for awhile. Recognize that using amenities as an economic development strategy has both pros and cons, much of which we are still learning about. I will write about this in a future blog as communities who have used their amenities well to diversify are teaching us a lot about what others can do to maximize the positive and minimize the negative outcomes.

Further resources:
Booth, D. E. (1999). Spatial patterns in the economic development of the mountain west. Growth & Change, 30(3), 384.
Clark, T. N., Lloyd, R., Wong, K. K., & Jain, P. (2002). Amenities drive urban growth. Journal of Urban Affairs, 24(5), 493-515.
Henderson, J. R., & McDaniel, K. (2005). Natural amenities and rural employment growth: A sector analysis. Review of Regional Studies, 35(1), 80-96.
Hunter, L. M., Boardman, J. D., & Saint Onge, J. M. (2005). The association between natural amenities, rural population growth, and long-term residents' economic well-being. Rural Sociology, 70(4), 452-469.
Nzaku, K., & Bukenya, J. O. (2005). Examining the relationship between quality of life amenities and economic development in the southeast USA. Review of Urban & Regional Development Studies, 17(2), 89-103.